Saturday Sounds: The Sounds of the City

Knoxville Skyline
Knoxville Skyline

This is another odd installment of Saturday Sounds. This isn’t about music, unless you want to call it the music of the city. The hums, crashes, screeches and general cacophony associated with a city. Have you ever stopped on a city street, closed your eyes and simply listened? It’s unlikely in this age of earbuds and generally entrenched electronic connections.

Stop just a moment and imagine yourself on a city street. What sounds might you hear? How would they differ depending on time-of-day, part of the city or particular city? If I hadn’t asked you to stop, would you have heard them at all?

Any given time of day in downtown Knoxville you might hear a range of vehicles from trains to emergency vehicles, trolleys to delivery trucks, street sweepers, backhoes, cranes and the incessant beep of construction vehicles backing up. The constant beeping sometimes makes me think construction vehicles only move in reverse.

Beyond the vehicles there are other sounds, such as the jackhammers which awakened me downtown earlier this week. My first 18 months of writing full-time, “quietly” working from home have included the construction of a nine-story parking garage across the street, the removal and replacement of cornices on our building, major construction projects and re-roofing by neighbors and my own renovations involving all the sounds that go with that. Next up: KUB digs up my street, rips up old pipes and replaces them. Bring on those jackhammers.

Construction constitutes a large part of the sounds you might hear in the city and it isn’t likely to diminish in ours for a long time to come. KUB will continue its projects through much of this year. The 700 block of Gay Street is set for a massive makeover. A number of buildings are currently undergoing renovations and restorations and, no doubt, many more will follow. The Jackson Avenue streetscape project and the replacement of that viaduct and the Broadway viaduct will be loud and prominent. Those parking lots which are slowly turning into buildings will also generate their own contribution to the sounds of the city.

Knoxville Skyline
Knoxville Skyline

Of course, those aren’t the only sounds. Friends talking to friends on the sidewalks or called greetings across a street are almost musical. The sound of Hank Williams coming from the speakers of a coffee shop, espresso machine joining on the chorus. The clank of dishes amidst muffled conversations in downtown restaurants or in late-night cocktail bars warms the soul.

And then there is literal music: Buskers perform on Market Square and in other corners of downtown. As likely as not through the spring, summer and fall, music of a more amplified variety spills off the Market Square Stage and filters with diminishing returns through the surrounding blocks. Weekend nights in the Old City, music streams from doorways up and down Jackson and Central and joins the laughter, loud conversations and fun of the late night district.

There are also nature sounds, believe it or not. Of course, there are dogs barking here and there, but downtown has a pretty amazing population of birds. Sometimes they travel in large and impressive groups and other times they seem to strike out alone. I’m not a great bird watcher, but I’ve enjoyed watching hawks and chimney sweeps and listening to their distinctive sounds. From inside my home I hear doves cooing through each spring. Often we’re awakened early mornings by a variety of birds singing outside. We even had a peacock wandering about for a while, though that natural sound was anything but pleasant to my ears.

Sounds of the city are important for anyone considering a move to the city. Some of these sounds are more likely heard as you walk down the street, while others will be audible in your downtown home. Which sounds do you like and which do you prefer to avoid? How loud is too loud? How frequent is too frequent?

The particular sounds and the volume you will hear in your new home is dependent on a number of variables. Proximity to the fire station, the railroad and the Market Square Stage will have an impact. Closeness to street-level and construction in your building will have an impact. Depending on construction you may even hear your neighbors, you may hear raindrops or you may be unaware that a storm is afoot. It’s important to consider which of these matter to you. What is tolerable – or even pleasant – for one person would be a potential deal-breaker for others.

Knoxville, October 2015
Knoxville, October 2015

At my 100-year-old downtown home I firetrucks pass within yards of my windows and are often very loud. The train is a distant, pleasant level. I can’t hear my neighbors in their homes, but I can hear conversations word-for-word as people pass on the streets. I can hear music from the Market Square stage, but only at a pleasant level. I can hear the PA system at Neyland Stadium, though mostly if I’m outside. I can hear the sound of rain on my roof and birds outside the window.

For my wife and I, the fire engines have faded to the point that we scarcely notice when they pass. We adjusted to the garbage and recycling trucks coming by in the middle of the night – and that’s still not our favorite. But we’ve found that we enjoy all the other sounds. Particularly early morning sounds of the city street coming to life.

That vibrant sound is why we chose to live in an urban environment. It’s the sound of life flowing, of work accomplished, of goals pursued. It’s the sound of lives, choices and dreams. I can’t imagine how strange it would seem now to lose those reminders wondrous mix of humanity all around us. The sounds aren’t for everyone, but if they are the soundtrack you love, there can be nothing better.

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